Leonard Benoit, RPN, is a member of the Qalipu Mi' Kmaq First Nations and is currently working in a dual role as the Indigenous Patient Navigator with the Toronto Central Region Cancer Program and the University Health Network. He has been a nurse for the past 23 years since graduating from Nova Scotia Community College.
More recently, he successfully completed a community service worker program to fine-tune his skills and increase his knowledge surrounding mental health and addictions.
Prior to his current position, Leonard worked in community care with people living with HIV. Although it was an eye-opening experience, he decided to follow his true passion and applied for the patient navigator position. Despite not having a master’s degree or some of the other preferred qualifications, Leonard still managed to stand out as the best candidate to advocate for patients due to his personal lived experience, knowledge of the healthcare system and background in community care.
Leonard’s main responsibilities include ensuring patients get treated decently, fairly and with dignity and respect; advocating for patient safety, spirituality and wellness; educating colleagues about Indigenous people and cultures as well as their beliefs and ceremonies; and ensuring that there is space available for these ceremonies and policies in place to support them.
“Stepping into this role is the first time I’ve actually worked as an Indigenous person within the healthcare system,” says Leonard. “When I worked in hospitals before, I was not really open about my First Nations’ status.” His background and identity, however, have allowed him to support and deliver exceptional care to Indigenous patients, ultimately making him a better healthcare provider. “We don’t have a cookie-cutter method in medicine where one way works for everyone,” he explains. “The way I think about [an Indigenous person’s] healthcare may differ from that of another patient. Medicine has to be adaptable; it always needs to focus on the individual patient.”
Leonard also explains, “When we think about medicine, we don’t think of it from a wellness perspective, but rather a disease stance. We don’t think about the patient’s resiliency, what their support mechanism is, or how they survive. We don’t encompass the spirituality, the emotional, the physical or the mental. In Indigenous communities, we embrace all of those things and ensure there’s no deficit in them to make sure the patient has the best possible outcome.”
Leonard’s desire to offer his patients more personalized care led him to learn what he describes as “a new language,” that is to say a new way of interacting with patients that focuses on wellness rather than simply their medical conditions. He now asks his patients what their goals of care are and what they’re looking for from their appointments, prompting them to engage in their own health management. He also helps restore patients’ autonomy by asking how he can best support them. “I’ll ask them what they need to get the best possible care,” he explains. “Patients need to be the ones at the steering wheel. I’ll ride shotgun but I think the person receiving the care is the one that needs to be driving the car. They just don’t always know where they’re going, so I can be their GPS.”
There’s no question that Leonard has had a fascinating career so far. He was originally interested in international nursing, so during his studies he took part in a cultural exchange in the Dominican Republic. “That was an amazing experience that made me take the blinders off with regards to healthcare,” he says.
Leonard also previously provided nursing care at the Central North Correctional Centre, a maximum-security prison in Penetanguishene, Ontario. This position provided him with a ton of autonomy regarding his practice. Leonard also worked at North York General Hospital in the surgical program, where he was lucky to have had a nurse manager who wanted to challenge him and allowed him to administer medications and do IV insertions, epidurals, complex dressings and simple procedures, which helped him expand his knowledge and skills. To this day, Leonard is still passionate about the program and describes himself as a “surgical nurse to the core.”
Leonard’s advice to fellow nurses is to find people to support you and identify effective coping mechanisms, like going out for a meal with colleagues after a long shift and having an informal “debriefing” about your day. Like a mental self-care routine, having an outlet allows you to get it out of your system and not take it home with you. Despite the challenges facing nurses today, Leonard is also still passionate about being an RPN. “This is our career,” he says of nurses. “We were called to do this; it’s our passion. And once you get called to something, you will find ways to make it work.”
“Nursing is a great career! It’s a hard career! But the rewards and what I have gotten out of this has given me more than anything that I could have imagined,” says Leonard. “It has been the most fulfilling experience that I have ever had.”